Who Wants to Travel Back in Time?

According to a new study, it's not who you'd think.

Posted Apr 21, 2014

My mother can use a cell phone, though it took some convincing to get her to accept my gift of an old flip phone. But nothing else about the modern world is of interest to her. Even items you'd think she would enjoy, like a laptop (she was a secretary her whole life, an incredibly speedy touch typist, and a woman with a lot to say) or a Kindle (she has always been a ravenous reader) hold no appeal. "I don't need it," she says. "If I want to know something that I could find out online, I'll just ask you."

But I wonder what she would say if I told her that one piece of 21st century technology could allow her to travel back and forth in time. At 89, she's afraid enough of death to want to turn back the clock, I would guess, and filled with enough regret to no doubt have periods in her life she'd like to go back to so she could get it right this time.

As it happens, the Pew Research Center recently asked Americans if they'd be interested in traveling back in time, and the surprising finding was people over 65 are only one-third as likely to express an interest in time travel as people in their 20s.

"Although interest in time travel is fairly consistent across age groups, it holds little appeal to older adults," writes Pew senior researcher Aaron Smith. Ten percent of people age 18 to 29 said they'd like to travel through time, he says, but, "just three percent of seniors mentioned time travel or a time machine as their future invention of choice." 

I was surprised to hear that older people aren't especially interested in time travel. I'm even more surprised about the reason why that Adrienne LaFrance puts forward in her Atlantic article about the Pew research. LaFrance quotes a scholar of science fiction, Kij Johnson, who says that of course people don't want to go back in time, because why would anyone want to return to the "core terrible experiences" of their lives to try to fix them?

But Johnson, who is 54, seems to have an awfully cramped, self-referential view of what a time machine is for. In true scholarly style, she makes reference to the original time machine in the 1895 H.G. Wells novel of the same name. If I remember correctly, though, the characters in The Time Machine weren't going back in time just to correct mistakes that had been made in their own lives. They went even further back, to eras that far predated their own time on earth. They used the machine not for self-improvement, not to alter the narratives of their own lives, but for full-bore, totally otherworldly exploration.

Here's the crux of the Pew findings, the part that rings truest to me at my own hoary age of 60: As a person ages, she feels her future foreshortening, and finds herself having less interest in the future than the past. "Indeed, many older Americans seem unexcited about futuristic inventions of any kind," Smith writes. "Fifteen percent say there is no particular invention they would like to own, and 41 percent are unsure what type of invention they would enjoy." This disinterest, I think, can be explained by two things—a long lifetime of seeing how little improvement has really come about through technological fixes, and the gradual erosion of youthful idealism. 

If older people aren't turned on by time travel, then, it's not quite for the reason Adrienne LaFrance suggests, that they don't want to go back and teach their younger selves a thing or two. Nor is it because, as she puts it, "adapting to the future is easier than screwing around with the past."

It might be true that these older people aren't interested in fixing the past—but I believe that they're not really adapting all that well to the future, either. I think they, like my mother, are simply hanging on for dear life to the here and now.

About the Author

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and the co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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